Atacama Spirit, Verve, Imperium Power Cables Review
David Price tries this British company's brand new range of power cables, with shocking results…
Spirit | Verve | Imperium
£179.99, £469.99, £949.99 respectively
Atacama has a new range of power cables out. Like the company's products of yore, I assumed they'd be affordable, well designed and suitably no-nonsense – but what I didn't know was that The Missing Link's Mark Sears has played a major part in designing them. The genial vinyl junkie with a keen interest in materials science and audio engineering, has produced a string of superb sounding yet bafflingly cheap interconnects over the years, under his own steam. Trouble is – and I hope he won't mind me saying this – the marketing has left more than a little to be desired. He's frankly far more interested in design than sales and gets bored with anything peripheral to his passion.
The new Sears/Atacama partnership makes great sense, then. There's a natural synergy between the two, so it was interesting to see that the cables are hand-assembled in the UK and serial numbered against specification to confirm authenticity. The pricing is interesting, covering a wider range than I expected – from £179.99 for the 1.25m IEC Spirit and £469.99 for the Verve up to £949.99 for the Imperium. The latter is certainly a step beyond Atacama's traditional territory. As you'd expect, a wide range of terminations is offered.
Mark Sears met Atacama's Carl Sambell and Dennis Greenaway nearly a decade ago, and this relationship has developed ever since. “We're predominantly a mechanical engineering company, so it made sense to look for a consultant with the vision, knowledge and passion for hi-fi cables and Mark fitted the bill perfectly”, Dennis told StereoNET. Mark has a very clear philosophy, one that he doesn't mind sharing. “Power cables should not be shielded. Shielding creates inductance. RFI is best addressed with ferrite, which has the added benefit of also reducing EMI between cables. Connection noise on a cable is also an issue as it creates short burst RFI, and cable resonance at its working frequency is a greatly misunderstood criteria for high-performance cables.”
He adds that most mains cables are spoiled by cheap dielectrics like PVC, which is not something you find in the Atacamas. “Also,” Mark says, “oversized conductors create more problems than they solve. Brass and nickel plug connectors have high resistance and this in turn generates higher contact noise. Shields in high current cable is totally crass and unnecessary.” Dennis agrees. “In layman's terms, we avoid the cheap dielectric materials that look pretty but create higher capacitance and current leakage. Instead, we focus on very specific insulating material in the design of our power cords.”
Mark chips in, saying that “meticulous material selection and advanced construction methods” are what separate the new Atacama cables from the best of the rest. “We use specialised internal resonance control and advanced high-performance materials not commonly found in other power cables. For example, we realised early on that each cable needed a dedicated fuse to match its specification. The fuse on a power cord is a choke point, and cables are not magic so whatever the fuse does before current reaches the actual cable will deeply affect it performance. Anything lost at the fuse cannot be put back.”
“I was the first person to silver plate power connectors for studio use back in the nineteen-eighties,” exclaims Mark, “and it was obvious the benefits brought to the recording industry by lowering contact noise in high current AC power connectors when micro arcing occurs. This occurs in all domestic mains AC power connectors to some degree; over a wide frequency range it creates a burst of both RFI and EMI and is directly related to the contact resistance of the connectors. This can be greatly reduced by simply reducing contact material resistance of the plugs…”
He continues, “my measurements show that specific types of laboratory-grade silver at 99.99% pure is the finest contact material available. Many companies make exuberant claims of higher purities, and this myth greatly harms the high-performance cable market”, he says. “Silicone has many advantages as a power cable dielectric in both flexibility insulation thermal durability and resonance control, although it is famously difficult to work with in cable production. However, the benefits outweigh the challenges in the cables I design.”
Dennis adds that Atacama has all the resistance measurements, with repeatable results that can easily be clarified. Indeed, the company is big on lab testing. “Cables measure differently”, says Mark, “and we use reference measurements for quality control – right down to the torque settings for the plug screws.”
The entry-level (£179.99/1.25m) Spirit has a customised dedicated UK 13 amp plug, with all its major internal components upgraded with pure silver plating, including the supplied 13A fuse. The blue sheathed cable itself has three 1.5mm2 pure silver plated multistrand 99.9999% oxygen-free copper conductors within a flexible silicone dielectric, and there's an outer mesh membrane for protection. The IEC connector on the other end is copper/pure silver plated 10amp type.
The £469.99 red-finished Verve adds a pure silver plated premium MSI 13A plug that has been adapted with a dedicated double silver plated Atacama 13amp fuse specifically developed for this cable. Internal components are double silver plated, and the pins are polished to a mirror finish. The cable has three 2.5mm2 pure silver-plated multistrand 99.99999% oxygen-free copper conductors, plus the aforementioned silicone insulator and outer mesh membrane.
£949.99 buys you the basic 1.25m Imperium, where all the stops have been pulled out. It sports a premium double silver plated cryogenically treated MSI plug and dedicated 13 amp fuse specifically designed for this cable. This is sixty percent thicker with three 4.0mm2 conductors, which are pure silver plated multistrand types with flexible Silicone insulator and purple outer mesh membrane. The MSI plug, Imperium fuse and wiring are all cryogenically treated to -351.15C – a process that reduces resistivity within the copper electrode by realigning the structure of the material.
The Spirit is unashamedly a power cord designed to replace the cheap Chinese ones bundled inside every hi-fi box, and it fills this role in a better than expected way, considering its modest price. There's a night-and-day difference between this and a kettle cord – it makes the music sound stronger and larger, yet smoother and more detailed too. The difference is quite stark, even in the sort of low-to-mid priced system that it's likely to be used with. Roxy Music's India, for example, went from being a slick but rather aimless instrumental track to a rather rousing, soul-stirring song. There aren't many upgrades that marked, for such a modest outlay.
The Verve takes us out of “it's a lot better than a kettle lead” territory, altogether. It starts to do quite a lot on a subtle level; many new low level improvements are now clear to hear. It was as if the Roxy Music track had just buffered up from 720p to 1080p, bringing a greater degree of precision. At the same time, one could now locate the instruments in the mix better thanks to a more three-dimensional sound. I found Stevie Wonder's Jamming much more dynamic than the Spirit, for example. At the same time I was far more focused in on the amazing tonality of his vocal, and the timing of his vocal inflexions. These gave his singing so much of its distinct quality, and allowed the song's power and passion to shine through. At the same time, the Verve accrued significantly higher scores than its cheaper sibling on bass grip, midband focus and treble accuracy.
Last but not least is the imperiously titled Imperium. It doesn't like to draw attention to itself, so instead sits up straight and gets on with the job. I cued up some classic Genesis in the shape of Mad Man Moon, and was struck by several things. Firstly the detail is amazing; you can get a far more high resolution musical picture than with either of the other two cables. It's so effortless and open that it's hard to go back to anything else. Also, it brings great rhythmic flow to the music, something that's simply not present in most high-end power cords. The music just sashayed along, with singer Phil Collins calling the shots. His vocal phrasing seemed to have more importance than is usual, despite the backing musicians behind him packing a huge physical punch.
All three of these cables have a warm and natural sound, although the higher you go up in the range, the more insightful things get. With the Imperium, it is quite profound. Such tremendous focus makes for a fantastic stereo soundstage, one that seems to dissolve the loudspeakers into thin air. The only caveat is that you'll need a seriously expensive hi-fi system to justify the purchase of even just a couple of these.
The new Atacama range of power cords is excellent, bringing quality and value to an already crowded marketplace – as well as class-leading sound. My only gripe – if you can call it that – is that there's a big cost difference between the three. This accurately reflects the performance gap, but an additional middle model might have made upgrading easier. Heartily recommended then, these new power cables could provide many more established cable brands with a few sleepless nights.
For more information, visit Atacama.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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